Whether it’s through song lyrics, a piece of sculpture, a poem or short story, the arts has a knack for taking complex ideas and presenting them in a way that helps us to better understand our world.
Many people, in many professions, have also valued the contribution of the arts to help further their work, including those who work in the legal profession.
A gripping story, told in just the right way, can bring us into the characters’ hearts and minds, arousing a sense of empathy and understanding that we take with us into the real world.
The ABA Journal’s Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction is just one award that recognizes the importance of such writing and its contributions to the legal field. And this year, a local author is in the running for the prestigious prize.
The prize was authorized by the late Harper Lee, the celebrated American novelist. It was established in 2011 by the ABA Journal and the University of Alabama Hugh F. Culverhouse Jr. School of Law to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The annual prize recognizes a book-length piece of fiction that best illustrates the role of lawyers in society and their ability to effect change.
Sharon Bala, author of the renowned “The Boat People,” is one of three writers in the running for the 2019 prize (the other books are “Class Action” by Steven B. Frank and “The Widows of Malabar Hill” by Sujata Massey).
Bala’s debut novel weaves together four story lines as it shares the plight of 500 Tamil refugees who flee to Canada to escape Sri Lanka’s civil war and start a new life. However, their search for asylum turns awry as government officials and news headlines speculate that there may be members of a separatist militant organization on board, threatening the country’s national security.
Molly McDonough, editor and publisher of the ABA Journal, says this year’s prize was difficult to judge with so many compelling reads in the mix.
“How popular culture interacts with and interprets the law and legal procedure is critically important not only for the reputation of lawyers, but for the broad support of the rule of law,” McDonough says.
Bala’s debut was a finalist for both Canada Reads 2018 and the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Her unpublished manuscript won the Percy Janes First Novel Award in 2015. To be nominated for this latest prize, she says, “was a surprise and a thrill.”
“It was one of those cases where I didn’t even realize ‘The Boat People’ was in the running for something so the news really did seem to come from out of the blue,” she says.
“Refugee law, and in particular, the perfectly legal and legitimate process of coming to the border and seeking asylum, is a situation that is woefully misunderstood by the general public. It doesn’t help that so many Canadian politicians – many of them lawyers by training – willfully and purposely lie. Fiction can be the antidote, translating the letter of the law into a compelling plot and using imagined characters to show readers the truth. The truth is so important. Sometimes I think it is our only hope.”
Now, readers can weigh in on who the winner should be via an online poll on the ABA website (click here and see the left-hand side). The winner of the poll, McDonough says, gets a boost in the selection committee’s final consideration. Voting closes at 11:59pm CT on Sunday, June 30.
The Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction will be awarded at an August ceremony at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the National Book Festival. The winner will receive a copy of “To Kill a Mockingbird” signed by Harper Lee. In addition to John Grisham, previous winners include Michael Connelly, Paul Goldstein, Deborah Johnson, Attica Locke, James Grippando and C. E. Tobisman.